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Friday 25 September 2015

Media are part of the problem

Are the media reporting or taking an active role in our political system?

This very question was raised by Tony Abbott in his concession speech; -

".... a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.
“And if there’s one piece of advice I can give to the media, it’s this – refuse to print self-serving claims, that the person making them won’t put his or her name to. Refuse to connive or dishonour, by acting as the assassin’s knife".

Tony Abbott's point was about the role of anonymous sources and 'white-anting', and I have covered that in my previous post (House of cards).

More generally stated, it is an accusation that the media by its constant focus on 'negatives', often trivial non-sensical contrived issues, creates, amplifies and perpetuates instability in our political system. Politicians are distracted to fight nuisance issues while their reform agenda is put on the back-burner. As a consequence our country's problems are not addressed, opportunities are not taken.

Is the 'system broken' when we have had 5 PM's in 5 years? Most external observers would think so. Not so our journalists. Niki Sava, and I m sure she is not alone, argues that our system is not broken and is working as it should (see The Australian, Sep 19, 2015, Yes, we’re not a banana republic, and no, the system ain’t broke). She argues it is our Prime Ministers who have not been up to the game. Many have nodded agreement, but this is simply self-serving media rationalisation.

Paul Kelly took the most unusual step of contradicting Sava, admittedly in a most gentlemanly style. (see The Australian, Sep 23 2015, Negative politics the biggest enemy of reform). How often do you see the Editor-in-Chief of a paper write an article addressing the same issues but offering a totally opposite view to one of their own journalists? I have not seen it before and surely it is rare. It is a brave and insightful article. Kelly has, I believe, described the issue well. By their very active magnification of even minor political 'issues' to the point that it causes paralysis, the media are complicit in the rising instability of our political system. We no longer get reform because any attempt at addressing it gets shot down in a torrent of criticism.

Media as king makers

However, I believe the problem goes deeper, as illustrated by the down-fall of three recent Prime Ministers in their first term.

There is a simple vicious circle, in which the media has a central role, that works to undermine sitting PMs.

It works like this; -
  • The media pick up any nuance of what is regarded as a 'political' error by the PM. 
  • All such errors are widely reported, scrutinized from every possible angle, usually to the exclusion of all else. This magnifies the issue and takes air-time from everything else. Often the trivial overtakes the substantial. Consider flags, cigars, winks, to name just a few.
  • Wide publication influences public opinion. In the first instance it need not be a great influence, even a small one will have an impact.
  • The influence is reflected in the polls with a downward movement in the popularity of the leader and his party. Published lower poll numbers further influence the electorate and the popularity of the PM and his/her party.
  • This becomes a vicious circle, with each decrease in poll numbers encouraging the media to look for more faults which then causes further falls in the polls.
  • Bad polls lead to questions of leadership and eventually a spill.

Does it look familiar?  Is is any wonder that three recent PMs have been brought down by their own parties?

Without doubt our political media are a key ingredient and must accept their failure in perpetuating this vicious cycle.

It is not difficult to address. Indeed it is very simple. But I will leave that commentary to another day.

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